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The Hypocrisy of Arrested Honduran President’s Drug Policy

On March 8, Juan Orlando Hernández, the former president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022, was found guilty in the Southern District Court of New York for drug trafficking-related crimes. The US Justice Department of Justice accused Hernández of trafficking over 400 tons of cocaine through the country during his presidency; throughout the whole case he maintained he was innocent, and that he had not accepted millions in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel or protected smugglers from investigation or arrest.

For decades, the Central American nation was a bridge for drug trafficking, with the drug business effectively institutionalised through public authorities, politicians and businessmen who colluded through political influence, organised crime and violence. The Honduran drug policy, based on an obsolete Decree 126-89 entitled “Law on the misuse and illicit trafficking of drugs and psychotropic substances” criminalises and punishes the use, carry and trafficking of drugs; however, this law is mostly applied on users and small-scale sellers, not actually impacting larger-scale traffickers or cartel leaders.

By 2022, Honduras ranked among the most violent countries in Latin America. The last three periods governments between 2010 and 2022 left Honduras in a dark shadow of violence and corruption. This is particularly highlighted by the assassination of former drug czar General Aristidez Gonzales, whose death was ordered by Generals José Luis Muñoz Licona and José Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, the former directors of the Honduran police from 2010 and 2013. According to the police’s own investigation, both directors worked for the Atlantic cartel along with more than two dozen officers of various ranks. They received their orders, organised and carried out the assassination, and finally covered it up.

Alfredo Landaverde, the ex-head of the Directorate for the Fight against Drug Trafficking, suffered the same fate. Days before his death, he was on a television programme, declaring that “high ranking officers of the national police had links with drug trafficking and knew who the drug traffickers were in each department of the country”.

 

Former US Vice President Mike Pence called JOH “a good friend & key ally on promoting security, stability, & democracy in Central America.” Source: Twitter.

 

Court documents during Hernández’s trial exposed the most significant conspiracy plot in Honduran history since the case of Honduran drug trafficker Ramon Mata Ballesteros in the late 1980s. The trial of the former Honduran president in New York court revealed how his rise in politics, from his first candidacy as a congressman, to the presidency of the executive branch was defined by bribery, influence peddling, and drug-funded political campaigns. Once in power, JOH – as the former president is colloquially known – tried to establish the image of a government that promoted security and fought drug trafficking: during his presidency, the nation received more than $50 million dollars from the US to combat drugs trafficking, along with tens of millions in additional security aid. However, JOH used his position to place preferred officials in key positions: like pieces on a chessboard, he strategically deployed drug-trafficking allies in public institutions like the national police, the armed forces, the national congress, among others, in order to fulfil his commitments and objectives.

JOH’s plans, far from promoting the collective wellbeing of the Honduran people, were oriented towards protecting drug traffickers and safeguarding their operations; this was the price to pay for the financing of his electoral campaigns, as well as the campaigns of other allied candidates.

 

A different look at drug policy

The recent guilty plea of the former Honduran president brings a slight sense of justice to Honduran society; but at the same time, there is a demand for more serious change, with people thirsty for justice to be exacted on those that remain unpunished. It is essential that whatever justice is made, it is compliant with the current penal code, even if it was produced during JOH’s administration, which softened the penalties for crimes related to drug trafficking. There is also a need to recognise that the current law on drugs is obsolete; it is healthy to update it with the incorporation of more humane perspectives that recognise drug users as subjects of rights, including perspectives that promote alternatives for drug users that allow them to protect their health and not continue to be seen as criminals who must be persecuted and punished.

Last March the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs passed for the first time a resolution citing the term “harm reduction” in an initiative led by the United States and many other Latin American nations. This opens the door for states to explore alternative responses for people who use drugs, and for those responses to be based on research and evidence. While “fighting” in an endless war to control the supply of drugs, people who use illegal substances have historically been left vulnerable to a prohibitionist approach that persecutes, punishes, stigmatises and provides few alternatives for care. And while those at the top of the drug trade escape with few punishments, those at the bottom, whether using or selling, often bear the most violent costs of this never-ending conflict.

Different countries in Latin America have been adopting other dynamics on drug use and abuse under the concept of risk and harm reduction, which refers to policies, programmes and practices aimed at minimising the negative impacts of drug use.

Between the paradigm of a “drug-free society” and the reality of drug trafficking, the new government of President Xiomara Castro must aim for a drug policy based on principles of justice and human rights, punishing drug traffickers and promoting not only drug prevention but also the care of people who use drugs.

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